Autonomous Shuttle Launches at Wright Brothers Memorial

A three-month pilot project to test small, electric autonomous shuttles in North Carolina launched at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills. The project will inform other driverless initiatives in the state.

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The North Carolina Department of Transportation launched an autonomous shuttle pilot at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills, N.C.
North Carolina Department of Transportation
Perhaps it’s only fitting that the site of early flight in North Carolina is today a launch area for a self-driving electric shuttle.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation, (NCDOT) in partnership with EasyMile, has deployed an autonomous shuttle pilot project at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills. The project is known as the Connected Autonomous Shuttle Supporting Innovation, or CASSI.

“NCDOT will use lessons learned from the pilot to guide policy development and roadway designs to ensure North Carolina roadways are a friendly environment for AVs,” said R. Harris Kay, a communications officer with NCDOT.

The transportation department will use the AV project to glean information around what laws or policies need modifying to facilitate AV deployments, what infrastructure is needed for connected vehicles and some of the use cases that are best suited for AVs, said Kay.

The software at the heart of the vehicles is provided by TransLoc, a transportation technology company operated by Ford Mobility. The technology was originally introduced at the 2020 Transportation Summit in Raleigh and then piloted at North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus.

The software provides real-time updates to NCDOT, giving the shuttle’s location and arrival times, said Brett Wheatley, CEO for TransLoc, in an email.

“TransLoc’s technology makes the service more rider-friendly and efficient with real-time route tracking, which passengers can view via a live map on the NCDOT’s website,” Wheatley explained.

Like the numerous other AV shuttle pilots across the nation, the shuttles at the Wright Brothers Memorial will include human operators to assist passengers and answer questions. The vehicle, which uses LiDAR and GPS to navigate its one-mile route, will travel between eight and 12 mph. Rides are free.

“This pilot is important to the department, because connected and autonomous vehicle technology will transform transportation,” said Kay. “It will increase both safety and capacity, and provide solutions for limited mobility individuals as well as first to last mile travel.

“After the three-month pilot at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, we hope to deploy in a rural small town, and perhaps again at a university or research campus,” Kay added. “The goal is ultimately to explore different environments for the shuttle to gather the most information and lessons learned.”

The small, electric autonomous shuttles have proven to be quite versatile. During the pandemic, shuttle projects in Columbus, Ohio, and Jacksonville, Fla., quickly pivoted from moving people, to transporting food for the needy and COVID-19 tests.

“We’ve come such a long way since the Wright Brothers made their first historic flight here more than a century ago," said Eric Boyette, the state’s transportation secretary, in a statement. “Just like that milestone, we think the CASSI represents the start of another revolution for transportation.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to more accurately reflect the partnership between NCDOT and EasyMile.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.